Imagination required if second-phase Brexit deal to be agreed

Imagination required if second-phase Brexit deal to be agreed

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the campaign trail in Middlesbrough last year. (Reuters)

The UK government is making final preparations for the country’s departure from the EU next week. However, while this historic moment looms large, this is not the end of Brexit, but rather the start of a new phase of negotiations that will see an increase, not a decrease, in UK-EU talks.

In what could be the most challenging peacetime dialogue ever undertaken by the parties, debate will move from the three core issues since the 2016 referendum — the Irish border, citizens’ rights, and the UK’s financial “divorce settlement” from the EU — to a much broader range of stage two topics, from transport and fisheries to financial services and data transfer. Collectively, this represents a new order of complexity and the troubled debates over the withdrawal deal will help set the tone.

One of the most striking features of the Article 50 period since 2017 is that the governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson were often on the back foot vis-a-vis Brussels, with many previous UK negotiating “red lines” shredded. The fortitude of Brussels surprised many in the UK due to common misperceptions of the “chaos” of the EU political process.

The reasons for the resolve of the EU27 cover at least three issues. Firstly, once May triggered Article 50 in 2017 — prematurely so, given the absence of any UK negotiating strategy on Brexit — the initiative was handed to the EU27. This is because, under Article 50, it was for Brussels alone, not the UK, to decide whether “sufficient progress” was made in the first phase divorce talks to justify moving to the next stage, underlining the bloc’s position as judge and jury.

Another reason for Europe’s relative unity over Brexit was that key leaders, including Emmanuel Macron, regarded the UK’s exit as an act of political vandalism to the continent. The tough approach agreed by the EU27 therefore reflects an overall belief that the 2016 referendum should not become an existential threat to the future of the EU, given the risk of political unrest spreading to other member states if the UK was perceived to be given an easy ride in negotiations.

In this context, any UK government would have had a difficult hand to play in the Article 50 talks. However, what made a bad situation immeasurably worse was the political weakness of May and the shambles of the UK’s negotiating position. The division and occasional incompetence were remarkable, with public infighting in the Cabinet sending signals that its Brexit plans were in disarray, and that it had still not reconciled many key negotiating tradeoffs by apparently wanting close, favorable ties but without the costs.

While London has shown failures of imagination with Brexit, this is also true of Brussels. The EU will need greater political and intellectual flexibility if even a minimalist deal is to be agreed this year. It has struggled to define what Brexit should mean, partly because this forms part of wider, difficult questions around where the EU is headed. Of course, Brussels has offered up numerous opportunities to Britain over the last few years, but there could have been greater willingness to think beyond “off-the-shelf,” standard options for what a close future partnership could mean.

However, many across the continent have been concerned about the threat to the EU of a potentially successful — or at least the appearance of a successful — Brexit in the coming years. They understandably do not want to be seen to fundamentally shift positions solely because of pressures from London. But now that a UK withdrawal agreement has been agreed, there is a growing requirement for the EU27 to think more creatively.

For instance, in what has been an inherently political negotiation over the withdrawal deal, the EU was sometimes too legalistic and doctrinaire with the process, in a way that would have made it hard for any UK government to deliver. The withdrawal deal — and the subsequent agreement to set up a new relationship — are exceptionally hard to undertake entirely in isolation, as the Northern Irish border issue has underlined.

Now that a UK withdrawal agreement has been agreed, there is a growing requirement for the EU27 to think more creatively.

Andrew Hammond

The lack of imagination by Brussels in the Brexit talks stems, in part, from initial complacency in some EU quarters over concerns the UK voters expressed in the referendum, which may have been dismissed too easily as British exceptionalism. However, even Macron admitted in 2018 that his country might vote for “Frexit” if a similar referendum were to be held in France.

Moreover, some EU27 decision-makers, although initially concerned that Brexit could lead to a domino effect across the continent, have perhaps even come to see the UK’s departure as a “problem” that may even be positive for the EU. In part, this stems from a long-held perception in parts of the EU that further integration tends to only happen through crises. However, this risks underplaying the scale of the challenges facing the bloc, of which Brexit is just one. 

This year is therefore the time for Brussels, as well as London, to redouble Brexit diplomacy to help ensure that a disorderly exit doesn’t come to pass. The stakes in play are huge, as the two sides seek a new and constructive partnership that can hopefully bring significant benefits for both at a time of global geopolitical turbulence.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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